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20 Top World War II Movies

Updated on October 7, 2016
The USS Arizona on fire after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 1941
The USS Arizona on fire after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 1941

World War II was the first war filmed in detail, and while there are literally thousands of films depicting that war, these twenty will give viewers a deeper appreciation of the sacrifices soldiers and civilians made in that war and a much greater understanding of the complexities of that war.

Note: The ratings (out of 10) next to each title come from the Internet Movie Database at imdb.com.

WWII mini-series

Band of Brothers (9.6)

Winner of a Golden Globe and an Emmy for best mini-series in 2002, Band of Brothers chronicles the lives of the men of Easy Company from boot camp in Georgia all the way to the fall of Berlin. Co-produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, this series is often raw and occasionally ribald but provides accurate portrayals of the lives of ordinary citizen-soldiers and stars Scott Grimes, Damian Lewis, Donnie Wahlberg, and Ron Livingston among many others.

Holocaust (8.2)

Broadcast on NBC in 1978 and winner of numerous Emmy and Golden Globe awards, this mini-series will move even the most hardened viewer to tears. Holocaust chronicles the trials and tribulations of the fictional Weiss family from Kristallnacht to the gas chambers at Auschwitz. The movie stars Meryl Streep, James Woods, Joseph Bottoms, Fritz Weaver, Michael Moriarty, Ian Holm, Rosemary Harris, and Tovah Feldshuh.

Uprising (7.2)

Broadcast by NBC in 2001, this mini-series takes viewers through the Jewish uprising in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943. An all-star cast (LeeLee Sobieski, Hank Azaria, David Schwimmer, Jon Voight, Cary Elwes, and Donald Sutherland) and exceptionally high production values for a made-for-TV movie make this an excellent record of Nazi atrocities in Poland and the heroic fight for freedom from oppression.

WWII movies based on actual events

The Longest Day (7.8)

Winner of two Academy Awards in 1963, The Longest Day gives a minute-by-minute account of the D-Day invasion at Normany. Though not as violent as the beginning of Saving Private Ryan (see below), this movie shows all viewpoints (English, American, French, and German) of that “day of days.” It also boasts a “who’s who” list of stars: John Wayne, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Eddie Albert, Red Button, Paul Anka, Fabian, Mel Ferrer, Henry Fonda, Peter Lawford, Roddy McDowell, Sal Mineo, Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, George Segal, Rod Steiger, Robert Wagner, and even Richard Dawson in a bit part.

Patton (8.0)

George C. Scott won an Academy Award for best actor in this 1970 biopic of George S. Patton, arguably the most controversial American general who ever lived. Karl Malden as Omar Bradley is the general who tries to keep Patton from self-destructing, but Patton (like the tank named after him) is an unstoppable force of nature. Patton’s opening speech is perhaps the most memorable scene in any movie at any time.

The Great Escape (8.3)

A cast of stars including Steve McQueen, James Garner, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, and Richard Attenborough fuels this 1963 action adventure based on the largest POW escape of any war in history. While not always historically accurate (i.e., McQueen rides a more modern motorcycle), The Great Escape is nonstop action and an ode to heroism.

Valkyrie (7.1)

Tom Cruise had the courage to make this 2008 film about the German plot led by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Despite mixed reviews in both the United States and Germany and difficulty getting permission to film in Germany, Cruise was able to make a film that exposes a history lesson rarely if ever taught.

Saints and Soldiers (6.8)

Made in 2003 with a shoestring budget ($780,000 US), this may be the most moving of recent war movies. It begins with the murder of 80 American soldiers in the Malmedy Massacre during the Battle of the Bulge and follows the survivors as they try desperately to return to Allied lines. While it lacks the special effects modern viewers expect to see in WWII movies, it makes up for this lack with excellent ensemble acting and shows soldiers on both sides maintaining their humanity and spirituality in the midst of all-out war.

Tora! Tora! Tora! (7.4)

This movie made in 1970 is much more historically accurate and more visually stunning (Academy Award for special effects) than 2001’s Pearl Harbor. While both films depict the American blunders that allowed the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor to occur, Tora! Tora! Tora! (which means “attack-torpedo-attack”) is by far the more satisfying film with excellent performances by Martin Balsam, E. G. Marshall, Joseph Cotten, James Whitmore, So Yamamura, Tatsuya Mihashi, and Jason Robards.

Midway (6.6)

Though this movie plods along and has some unnecessary subplots that slow it down, the outstanding sea and air battles that turned the tide of the war in the Pacific save it. This 1976 movie accurately portrays the Battle of Midway and stars Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, James Coborn, Glenn Ford, Hal Holbrook, Robert Mitchum, Cliff Robertson, Robert Wagner, and Robert Webber.

Battleground (7.5)

This 1949 gritty, realistic look at the Battle of the Bulge through the eyes of the 101st Airborne won two Academy Awards and was nominated for four more including best picture. Van Johnson, a young Ricardo Montalban, and James Whitmore star in a war film where Mother Nature is often the cruelest part of war.

Flags of our Fathers (7.1)

Grim, graphic, and meaningful on many levels, this 2006 movie does justice to James Bradley and Ron Powers’ book of the same name. The film follows the soldiers who raised the famous Iwo Jima flag and the effects that flag-raising had on their lives.

Letters from Iwo Jima (8.0)

This 2006 companion movie to Flags of our Fathers is perhaps the better offering from director Clint Eastwood. It retells the battle for Iwo Jima from the Japanese point of view and is incredibly revealing and completely human. Nominated for best director, best picture, and best writing, this film is impossible to turn away from. Ken Watanabe's portrayal of General Kuribayashi was more than Oscar worthy.

Entertaining WWII movies

Saving Private Ryan (8.6)

Nominated for 11 Academy Awards and winner of five, this 1998 movie stars Tom Hanks as the man sent to find Private Ryan (Matt Damon) and bring him home to the United States. The first twenty-seven minutes of the film, the D-Day landing, gives the most graphic scenes of war in cinematic history and is not for the faint of heart.

Stalag 17 (8.1)

William Holden won a best actor Academy Award for his 1953 portrayal of a POW accused of collaborating with the Germans. This film is an excellent character study and accurately portrays life in a German POW camp. The movie also stars Otto Preminger, Robert Strauss, and Peter Graves.

The Dirty Dozen (7.8)

While this 1967 film is completely escapist, it was nominated for three Academy Awards and stars Lee Marvin, Jim Brown, Telly Savalas, Charles Bronson, Donald Sutherland, and John Cassavetes. Action, humor, and violence abound, making it an extremely entertaining movie—even if you don’t like war movies.

Where Eagles Dare (7.6)

Alistair MacClean’s novel brought brilliantly to life, this 1968 movie stars Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton, two of the biggest names in movie history. While viewers must suspend their disbelief fairly often, it is action and adventure of an epic scale.

Kelly's Heroes (7.5)

Often listed as one of the top ten best World War II movies of all time, Kelly’s Heroes boasts a stellar cast (Clint Eastwood, Carroll O’Connor, Don Rickles, Donald Sutherland, and Harry Dean Stanton, among others), a strange soundtrack, and an amazing railroad battle scene. Released in 1970, it contains overtones of the Vietnam era as soldiers routinely defy the officers above them.

The Bridge on the River Kwai (8.4)

This winner of seven Academy Awards including best picture is truly a movie classic, enjoyable for all ages to watch. British Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) and Japanese Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) have a legendary war of wills over the building of a bridge in the jungles of Southeast Asia. The cinematography is lavish, and the all-star cast shines throughout, and the final scene sums up the war--"Madness."

WWII documentary

White Light, Black Rain (8.2)

This 2007 HBO documentary is definitely not for the faint of heart. It details the effects of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and includes incredible, heartrending interviews with survivors. It won an Emmy and the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and contains archival footage of the immediate after-effects of both bombings.

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    • Peter Geekie profile image

      Peter Geekie 4 years ago from Sittingbourne

      Thank you for a look at some of the better films. I do find it very irritating when Hollywood completely ignores the actual facts of certain events ( i.e. when British action is shown as carried out by Americans, American action is twisted to suit the film makers thus ignoring the real American heroes and so on).

      I also hate continuity errors, wrong aircraft, tanks, vehicles and uniforms. It may seem nit picking but it should be no hardship to get these things right.

      Kind regards Peter

    • multiculturalsoul profile image
      Author

      JJ Murray 4 years ago from Roanoke, Virginia

      These films make up a two-semester high school course I teach, and even my young charges point out errors. We first watch about 27 hours of History Channel DVDs and get the "real" story before delving into the above list. I also throw in Spielberg's 1941 to show some of the paranoia that gripped the West Coast after Pearl Harbor. Spielberg was completely over-the-top, but at least he got the planes and uniforms right. Thanks for commenting!

    • therunningman profile image

      therunningman 3 years ago from Rhode Island

      I consider myself quite the WWII movie connoisseur and think you've done a great job with this list. I might add Windtalkers and a few others that come to mind to the 'entertaining' group. And I think the mini series The Pacific is almost as good as Band of Brothers. Great job, thanks!

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